Ron Sabin – Greenkeeper of the Year

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Bowls Papanui greenkeeper Ron Sabin was named the Bowls New Zealand Greenkeeper of the Year at the Awards Dinner earlier this year.

At the age of 80, Bowls New Zealand Greenkeeper of the Year, Ron Sabin shows no inclination to retire.

Why would he? He would only swap playing bowls and tending greens for playing bowls and tending greens.

In other words, Ron loves what he does.

In another few years, he will have been playing bowls for 50 years after joining the old Canterbury Bowling Club in Salisbury Street in Christchurch in 1972 … and this season is his 40th year greenkeeping.

Sure, after so long, Ron’s game may not be what it was. But his greenkeeping acumen is only getting better. When Ron opines about green care, people at clubs, people at centres, people at national level, and even people at international level, listen. He’s got a track record – sorry, a green record, which confirms that he’s a bloke that knows what he’s talking about.

Ron’s been the greenkeeper at Bowls Papanui in northwest Christchurch for years. In that time, he’s prepared the two 36.6 metre x 36.6 metre maniototo greens for more signature tournaments than anywhere else in New Zealand, including the World Bowls Championship in 2008 and 2016, Asia Pacifics in 2015 and in the years that followed, the Trans-Tasman series and the Nationals.

Lawn bowlers don’t grumble about Ron’s greens.

And tournament organisers obviously don’t either … Ron’s the only greenkeeper in the world who’s looked after two world champs.

“My philosophy is simple,” says Ron. “If you haven’t got a good green, you haven’t got a good club.”

“When the earthquakes struck Christchurch in 2011, the Parkland Bowling Club was badly hit. The membership understandably almost disappeared. The Council considered reclaiming the club for reserve. But after two years and a lot of hard work, we got the two greens back to tip-top shape. The club’s got 170 members these days, and it’s regarded as one of the best bowling spots in Christchurch.”

Ron’s always been keen on finding new ways to make greens better.

Ron was the guy that way back when introduced the ‘hydrojet’ to New Zealand. “When I ‘retired’, I locked on to this new way of using high water pressure to break up compacted greens. I used to travel around the country demoing the hydrojet to bowling clubs and golf clubs. It worked a treat.”

In fact, if you didn’t know Ron well, you’d think he had been greenmaking and greenkeeping all his life.

He hasn’t. Ron’s had a career in butchery, starting as a knife hand at Kiwi Bacon before buying his first butcher’s shop in Bower Avenue in New Brighton in 1972.

“I eventually had three shops and 3 manufacturing plants supplying SuperValue, before selling out in 1986.”

In the 60’s, Ron had been a gang shearer, flitting between New South Wales and New Zealand with the narrow comb and the wide comb, going to wherever the work was … and where it paid the best.

Ron was an Aussie … well sort of. In fact he was born in the army barracks of Dunbar in Scotland in 1939. His father was an English Sergeant-Major who went off to war and never returned. His addicted mum was left trying to cope with Ron and his two brothers in the infamous ‘Rochester Dwellings’ of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. “We lived like rats in this slum,” recalls Ron, “It was unimaginable hardship by today’s standards. Just google it .. it will make your hair stand on end.”

The English courts ruthlessly uplifted Ron and his brothers from his mum in 1950, and sent them off to Fairbridge Farm School on the other side of the world in Molong, 18 kilometres from Orange in New South Wales. “It was a tough school, but not cruel,” says Ron. “When we were 17, we were given £8 and two sets of work clothes and sent out into the world.”

Ron’s mix of Scottish brogue and Aussie twang must have impressed a young Kiwi girl visiting New South Wales in the late 50’s, and Ron chased her back to New Zealand and married Judy – his wife of more than 50 years.

“I rediscovered mum in 1982 … a neighbour of hers found my brother, and she came out and stayed with us for 3 months. I never heard of my father again.”

It’s been a challenging life for Ron. He’s even written two books on the subject: ‘From English Hell to Aussie Heaven’ and ‘The Long Way Home’.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly a long way from the world of bowls and greenkeeping and we are lucky to have you, Ron.

Congratulations on your award.

by Rob Davis